On a cold clear Wednesday morning in February in busy Café Brava, a bakery café in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, Turk Arslan, his given name Daniel but everyone knows him as Turk, and his sister Emily Arslan are having breakfast with their good friends Elvis and Lena Quisenberry. Turk and Elvis are both sixty-five, Emily and Lena both sixty-three.
Turk, a lifelong bachelor, big and mostly bald and twenty pounds overweight, is a year away from retiring as a deputy sheriff, and Emily, also never married, small and stout with gray hair in a page boy, was a school teacher in their hometown of Fresno until she had a nervous breakdown eight years ago, a breakdown that precipitated their move to Mercy – Turk quitting the Fresno police force after thirty years of service and becoming a deputy sheriff in Mercy.
Elvis, long and lanky with shoulder-length brown hair going gray, is a mechanic at Mercy Garage and Lena, zaftig with short brown hair currently tinted magenta, used to own a women’s clothing store in Mercy called Perfect Fit and for the last five years has worked three days a week at Excellent Blow, one of Mercy’s three cannabis dispensaries.
Turk and Emily and Elvis and Lena are all cannabis users, Elvis and Lena daily smokers, Emily a daily user of cannabis gummy bears, and Turk an occasional smoker on his days off. The four became friends five years ago when Emily bought cannabis at Excellent Blow from Lena on Lena’s first day of work there and they discovered they were both quilters and knitters and dog and cat lovers, and they’ve been a happy quartet ever since.
“What’s the latest from Jerry?” asks Emily, inquiring about Lena and Elvis’s only child who recently became a high school drama teacher in Boise after living in Los Angeles for twenty years trying to make it as an actor and supporting himself by working in a cannabis dispensary.
“He’s a little depressed,” says Lena, who got very stoned this morning with Elvis before they walked from their house on the northern edge of Mercy to Café Brava in the center of town. “A far cry from Hollywood.”
“No more depressed than he was in LA,” says Elvis, eagerly awaiting the arrival of his El Grande Breakfast Burrito #4. “For twenty years he auditioned for anything and everything in that, pardon my French, fucking town. We’re talking thousands of auditions. Twenty years. A talented handsome guy. And in all those years he was in four commercials, spoke in one of them, was a passerby in a scene in a movie where Gwyneth Paltrow tells… I never can remember his name… she knows he’s cheating on her, and…”
“Colin Firth,” says Lena, sipping her latte.
“What about Colin Firth?” says Elvis, frowning at Lena. “I was talking about Jerry.”
“Jerry was a passerby in a scene where Gwyneth Paltrow tells Colin Firth she knows he’s cheating on her,” says Lena, waving to a woman who used to shop at Perfect Fit and now shops at Excellent Blow. “And then Jerry walks by and Colin Firth tries to deny it.”
“Now I can’t remember where I was going with this,” says Elvis, making a spluttering sound. “What were we talking about?”
“Jerry,” says Emily, who is only mildly high from her first gummy bear of the day. “Four commercials, passerby in the scene with Gwyneth and Colin, and…”
“Right,” says Elvis, pointing at her. “And two lines in a movie with Brad Pitt.”
“When Jerry played the guy working in a Jiffy Burger,” says Turk, who has heard the list of Jerry’s show biz accomplishments dozens of times. “We saw the movie. He was terrific.”
“‘That’ll be seven forty-five,’” says Elvis, nodding. “That was Jerry’s first line. Then Brad Pitt gives him a ten and says, ‘Keep the change,’ as only Brad Pitt can say that, and Jerry says, ‘Too kind.’ He totally improvised that line and the director was miffed and shot the scene again and told Jerry to stick to the script and say, ‘Gosh, thanks,’ but when they saw the dailies the director totally dug Jerry’s improv and they used it. Absolutely makes the scene. Here’s this guy working in a fast food joint saying, ‘Too kind’ like he’s Alec Guinness without a British accent. Brilliant.” Elvis shakes his head. “They missed a bet with Jerry, I’m telling you.”
“I hope he’s adjusting okay,” says Emily, who feels anxious just thinking about teaching high school. “I taught Drama for five years along with English, and Drama was not easy. I don’t care what anybody says. Thirty teenagers with raging hormones undressing in front of each other and putting on costumes and performing emotional monologues?” She closes her eyes. “Madness.”
Breakfast arrives and Turk says, “Speaking of madness, last night we got a slew of calls from people complaining about a campfire on the town beach. Homeless people trying to stay warm. The shelters are full. The beach is theoretically closed after dark, but there’s no way…”
“What do people want you to do?” asks Elvis, devouring his burrito. “Put them in jail? Where are they supposed to go? Better they camp on the beach than in our backyard, and that has happened more than once, and believe me it’s no fun telling starving people to get off your property.”
“So you went down there?” asks Lena, who often sells cannabis to homeless people and always feels a little conflicted knowing they’re getting high instead of buying food.
“I did,” says Turk, sipping his coffee. “Usually two of us go, but Ruben’s ankle is still on the mend and he can’t walk on sand, so I went solo. Checked out the scene with night goggles from the vista point before I went down there, and I saw a couple really young women with the usual mob. They couldn’t have been older than sixteen. But by the time I got down there the girls were gone. And when I asked the guy who begs in front of Walker’s with his one-eyed pit bull if the girls were local, you’ll never guess what he told me.”
“What did he tell you?” asks Elvis, his burrito suspended a few inches from his mouth.
“He told me to fuck off,” says Turk, laughing.
“You didn’t tell me about the girls,” says Emily, grimacing. “Breaks my heart.”
“Crazy world out there,” says Turk, nodding. “And freezing cold. I hope they werelocals and had beds to go home to, but I wouldn’t bet on it.”
“Did you look for them?” asks Emily, who can’t wait for Turk to retire so she can stop worrying about him every night when he’s working. “Call out to them?”
“No,” says Turk, shaking his head. “Chasing strays on the beach in the dark is not in my job description.”
Turk is one of two sheriffs on duty in and around Mercy from four to midnight, and he says his job is a piece of cake compared to his job as a policeman in Fresno – Mercy a small town with little crime, Fresno a big city with all kinds of ethnic and economic divides.
The three pubs in Mercy close at eleven on week days, midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, the Coast Cinema is usually dark by eleven, and Walker’s Groceries closes at ten, so after midnight the only place in Mercy open is the Emergency Room at Mercy Hospital. But piece of cake or not, Turk rarely works his 4 PM to Midnight shift without a modicum of drama – car accidents, domestic abuse, pub brawls, fires, burglaries, lost dogs, suicides, and once in a great while murder.
At 9 o’clock in the evening of the same Wednesday that Turk and Emily breakfasted with Elvis and Lena, Turk and Ruben Higuera are taking a twenty-minute break at Big Goose, one of Mercy’s three pubs, and briefing each other on what they’ve seen and done since they both started working at four – enjoying a little time out of their squad cars.
“There are three kinds of cops,” says Turk, finishing his piece of pumpkin pie.
“Smart cops, dumb cops, and dumber cops?” guesses Ruben, laughing.
“There’s that,” says Turk, laughing along with Ruben who is twenty years his junior and a body builder, Ruben’s biceps monumental. “And there are cops who look for trouble, cops who avoid trouble, and cops who trouble finds.”
“Same way in the Army,” says Ruben, who survived two years in Afghanistan. “Guys who volunteer for dangerous missions, guys who volunteer for nothing, and guys who no matter what they do, the fight always finds them.”
Graceful lovely Diana saunters by with a tray laden with pints of ale and says to Turk and Ruben, “Get you guys more coffee?”
“We’re outta here,” says Turk, beaming at her. “Please tell Angelica her pie was fabuloso.”
“She likes you, Turk,” says Ruben, when Diana is out of earshot. “She always gives you that look of love she never gives me. You lucky guy.”
“I’m old enough to be her father,” says Turk, getting up from the table and leaving a twenty to cover their pie and coffee and tip. “She’s only forty-something. We helped her out when she first moved here, Emily and I. Don’t be ridiculous. She’d smile at you that way, too, if you weren’t married.”
“I apologize,” says Ruben, knowing women and romance aren’t part of Turk’s life and wishing he hadn’t said anything. “You want to check the beach? My ankle’s okay. I can do sand. The calls keep coming in.”
“I’d rather not,” says Turk, putting on his hat, “but we probably should.”
When Turk gets home a little after midnight, Emily is waiting up for him as always, sitting on the sofa knitting, their old brown mutt Bongo lying at her feet, their calico cat China purring by her side.
Turk takes a shower, put on his pajamas, and sits in his rocking chair by the fire sipping chamomile tea – tomorrow the first of his two days off.
“What are you thinking about?” asks Emily, sensing something amiss with her brother.
“Oh lots of things,” he says, clearing his throat. “We checked out the beach again tonight, Ruben and I, and we didn’t see the girls. Just nine guys and a three old gals. We took them a couple bags of groceries.” He shrugs. “I just wanted to. They’re not doing anything wrong except they’re not supposed to be there. But where can they go? I feel so helpless to help them.” He shakes his head. “System’s broken.”
“Did you ask about the girls?” says Emily, her heart aching as she thinks about the people on the beach trying to stay warm.
“No,” he says quietly, “but I spent the rest of my shift looking for them, and I was thinking… how would you feel about us taking in a foster child after I retire? We’ve got the extra bedroom and… I don’t know. I think about how if Aunt Sarah hadn’t taken us in when Mom died we would have been foster kids and they might have split us up or… who knows what might have happened.”
“A foster child?” says Emily, horrified. “Oh Turk. I can’t do that. I’m barely hanging on as it is.”
“You’re right,” he says, nodding. “It was just a thought. You know. In the moment.”
Thursday is Turk’s favorite day of the week, and he often says when he retires every day will be a Thursday.
He rises early as usual, takes Bongo for a walk up and down their two-block-long street, Comfrey Lane, all the houses one-story with small yards, and after having coffee and one of Emily’s delicious pumpkin muffins, he vacuums the house to combat the never-ending onslaught of animal hair before sitting down at the kitchen table to write a few postcards to old friends while he has a second cup of coffee.
Around ten, he and Emily walk into town together, stop at the post office to mail the postcards and check their post office box – mostly junk mail today and one actual letter from Emily’s old chum June who Turk was not-so-secretly in love with and June might have tumbled for him except he never asked her out because he knew Emily would have been devastated.
From the post office they walk to Excellent Blow where Emily buys two boxes of cannabis gummy bears from Lena who cajoles Turk into having two hits of a new strain they recently got in called Inspiration Point, which Lena says she and Elvis have been totally digging lately.
Turk’s high comes on while Lena and Emily are babbling about recent snafus with their current quilts and he wishes he hadn’t gotten high because he was so enjoying how he felt before he toked, and he almost says this to Emily and Lena, but he doesn’t.
Home again, his high from Inspiration Point showing no signs of waning, Turk starts a fire and sits in his rocking chair looking through a big book of Modigliani nudes, all of whom make him think of Diana the lovely waitress at Big Goose, and Tina Lombardi, the only woman Turk ever had sex with – for one glorious year and almost every day when Turk was twenty-seven and Tina, a divorcee with two kids, lived next door to Turk and Emily in Fresno and wouldn’t take no for an answer from the handsome young cop.
Then she got transferred to Phoenix and I never saw her again thinks Turk lingering on his favorite Modigliani, Nude on a Blue Cushion, which always puts him in mind of several women he might have had love affairs with or even married except I was married to my sister. Without sex or intimacy or passion. I don’t blame Emily. This is just how our life unfolded under the circumstances.
After lunch, minestrone soup and French bread and cheese, Turk and Emily walk Bongo up and down Comfrey Lane again before Turk drives Emily with her current quilt to her friend Claudette’s house where Emily and Claudette and two other women sit in Claudette’s big quilting studio and work on their quilts and talk.
While Emily is at Claudette’s, Turk does the week’s shopping at Walker’s Groceries, messes around in Mercy Hardware, and buys postcards and a couple fine-tipped pens at Joan’s, Mercy’s one stationery store.
With an hour left to kill before he picks up Emily, Turk drives to the Mercy Community Library and sits at the big round table in the reference room writing postcards to Tank Wilkins who was his partner on the Fresno force for many years and now raises bees in New Mexico, and Magdalena Cortez who rode with Turk her first two years on the force and was a very good cop until she quit to have a couple kids with her software designer husband Hal who out of the blue hit it big with an app that some huge company bought for a fortune and Magdalena and Hal moved to Malibu where Magdalena is now grooming her two gorgeous daughters to be fashion models and actresses.
Though he knows it pains Emily when he doesn’t have supper with her on Thursday evenings before he goes to Big Goose to listen to Ricardo Alvarez play piano, Turk is craving Big Goose’s incomparable fish & chips tonight and leaves the house at six wearing his favorite teal dress shirt and black corduroy trousers and a purple beret.
Emily won’t leave the house after dark, even with Turk accompanying her, so this weekly excursion to hear Ricardo play is one of the rare things Turk does out of uniform without Emily.
“I cannot live my entire life catering to my sister,” says Turk, walking to the pub for a leisurely meal before Ricardo starts playing at seven – dusk giving way to darkness – and he laughs at what he just said because he has lived his entire life catering to his sister, and he knows why.
Their Turkish mother Burcu died when Turk was eleven and Emily was nine, Burcu long estranged from her parents and family and having no community of friends, the identity of her children’s fathers dying with her. And knowing instinctively there was no one they could depend on except each other – the woman who took them in largely indifferent to them – they vowed never to leave each other, a vow Emily has never wished to break and Turk wanted to break every day of his life until he was fifty and came to believe Emily would kill herself or go insane if he left her.
When lovely Diana takes Turk’s order, she is not wearing her usual Big Goose sweatshirt and jeans, but a silky green blouse and a black skirt, her long graying auburn hair in a beautiful braid.
And after she places the half-pint of Mercy porter and a big platter of fish & chips before Turk, she sits down opposite him and says, “I’m taking Thursdays off now. I’m a goner for Ricardo’s music.”
“You and me both,” says Turk, blushing to think she served him even though she’s not working tonight.
“I saved two seats close,” she says quietly, “if you want to sit with me.”
“Love to,” he says, his heart pounding.
“Hey I need to thank you again,” she says, gazing intently at him. “For helping me when I first got here, letting me park in your driveway and use your bathroom and kitchen until I had enough money to get a place. Saved my life.”
“Seems like forever ago,” says Turk, realizing she is baring herself to him – intimacy – and he wants more than anything to bare himself to her.
“A year and two months,” she says, smiling as she cries. “Happiest fourteen months of my life thanks to you and Emily.”
“Well,” he says, approaching a precipice and preparing to leap, “when I saw you, you know, when I so rudely shined my flashlight into your van, I just… I don’t know I… I recognized you. You know what I mean? As if I already knew you and cared about you, so of course I wanted you to park in our driveway and not get busted. I’d never done that before and haven’t done it since.”
“I recognized you, too,” she says, nodding.
“You did?” he says, amazed to hear her say this. “What did you recognize about me?”
“I recognized you as my friend. My dear kind friend.”
Sitting with Diana close to the stage, listening to Ricardo play a tender ballad, before he can think not to, Turk reaches for Diana and she meets him halfway – the embrace of their hands as sweet as the sweetest lovemaking.